Metro council begins hearing input on local constitution re-write

Proposal would consolidate Metro Council districts

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council began taking public comment Wednesday, Aug. 14 on a proposed rewrite of the city-parish’s constitution, called the plan of government.

The most controversial recommendation would consolidate the number of council districts from 12 to 10, but add two at-large seats so the council could retain 12 members. One at-large candidate would be from the City of Baton Rouge, and the other could come from anywhere in the parish.

Both would be elected by voters in the entire parish, a sticking point for Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who led the charge to update the plan of government.

“If it’s a city seat, then it should only be voted on by people who are in the city,” she said.

The proposal has also drawn criticism from the local chapter of the NAACP, which has long-advocated for separate parish and city councils.

“We believe going to at-large seating will dilute the black vote,” Baton Rouge chapter president, Eugene Collins, said. “That’s a wide are to cover, and we know that in our community, candidates can sometimes have a hard time raising funds.”

There are more African Americans in the City of Baton Rouge than any other ethnicity, while the population outside the city limits is mostly white. The NAACP fears adding two at-large seats to be elected by the entire parish could open the door for more white, Republican influence on the council.

“I don’t think the committee had a sense that it would have that effect or they wouldn’t have recommended it,” said BRAC president and CEO, Adam Knapp, who sits on the committee tasked with recommending the changes.

Knapp says there’s no research indicating the move would “dilute” the African American vote, though he says it’s a topic the council should consider as it moves forward. Knapp proposed the at-large concept after conducting years of research, which included visits to comparable cities with similar governmental structure.

“It broadens the perspective of the legislative branch to think about who we are as East Baton Rouge in 2019 and 2020 and where we want to go,” Knapp said. “The ability to think about the bigger picture is often aided by having additional, broader perspective voices in that conversation.”

Each new district would still have a representative, though it’s unclear what the districts would look like. They would be redrawn after the 2020 census.

Other portions of the proposal would give the metro council more time to review and change the mayor’s budget, as well as create more positions under the mayor to spread out responsibilities.

Some council members have said they want to host community meetings to gather more input before voting on the changes.

The metro council would have to approve each recommendation. The proposals would then appear on voters’ ballots for final approval, which may not happen until the spring of 2020 and perhaps not even until the presidential election in November of 2020.

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